I listen to music constantly, become obsessed with particular records and often feel the need to rant to people about them; pieces that, for some reason, I think may affect and change their lives for the better, be it for as little as a minute and 20 seconds. However, I know very little about how music is made or constructed, despite years of expensive lessons on a variety of instruments and a brief tour around Germany with a brass band.
If I were to attempt to make a record, I know that the area in which I would struggle most would be in writing lyrics. How can you be that open about your thoughts and give people the opportunity to ridicule what you’re saying? It has always seemed to me a very brave thing to do. And lyrics can put the listener off an otherwise decent tune. Once, I didn’t play a record on my radio show because the band kept making references to hanging out in Camden Town. Shallow, I know, but it was annoying.
It is with joy, therefore, that I’ve noticed that there seems to have been an increase in popular acts that do without words altogether – or whose vocals are muffled, quiet and unintelligible, as if they were trying to tell you something not very important from the other side of a brick wall. In the past, instrumental acts would have been solely associated with either dance music or what is irritatingly referred to as “chill out” but, in the past few years, this seems to have changed, with some instrumentals even getting played on daytime radio.
The increase almost certainly has something to do with the huge success and popularity of dubstep, a genre of dance music that managed to sneak its way into pretty much every corner of the music world, including the UK Top 40. Musicians have since opened up the genre so much that it is no longer distinct and people don’t know how to categorise the acts that have sprung out of its ashes.
In the post-dubstep era, people have become used to the idea of watching instrumental acts in much the same way as you would go to watch a band -without feeling the need to get wasted or dance, like you would in a nightclub. You could probably even get away with some beard-scratching. And these acts are performing in venues once reserved for more conventional, all-singing bands, as well as signing up to record labels that would previously not have ventured outside of indie rock.
The instrumental acts that I have been digging most this year vary considerably, from the slightly mystical and hypnotic duo Mount Kimbie to Fuck Buttons, who move rather gracefully from the sort of euphoric, electronic sound that you might associate with being fired into space to something close to thrash metal. Another fave from 2010 has been an indie-rock track by Civil Civic called “Run Overdrive” – you spend five minutes waiting for the vocals and they just don’t turn up.
There is an ever-expanding list of instrumental acts, which includes Gold Panda, Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Forest Swords. Their styles are varied, but what links them is that you really don’t notice the lack of words – these people are extraordinarily good at creating pictures out of sound alone and their music is, strangely, all the more beautiful for it. Even the noisy, aggressive acts.
Of course, there is the chance that, as I grow older, I am subconsciously just becoming more attracted to music without vocals. Instrumentals allow you to flood the music with your own story without some young buck trying to tell you his. If this is the case, though, it is somewhat embarrassing and I’d rather you didn’t say a word. l
Tom Ravenscroft’s radio show is on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm